Big Sky men's basketball tournament

Top-seeded Thunderbirds blitz UNC, move into Big Sky semifinals


BOISE, Idaho — Northern Colorado’s formula for success has been defined for several seasons, whether under former head coach Jeff Linder or first-year head man Steve Smiley.

The Bears want to chase their opponents off the 3-point line while getting as many good looks from beyond the arc as possible themselves.

Trading threes for twos is simple math and a prevalent element of modern basketball. But the formula becomes flawed when an aggressive dynamo attacks the rim relentlessly like John Knight III did on Thursday morning.

Knight, Southern Utah’s all-conference senior guard, used his elite explosiveness to get to the rim over and over and over again in the first quarterfinal of the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball championship tournament at Idaho Central Arena.

The former Utah State transfer who hails from Jackson, Mississippi cranked up his already high-speed motor, taking an array of Northern Colorado defenders off the dribble and scoring at the rim constantly to help top-seeded Southern Utah to a 91-83 victory over the eighth-seeded Bears.

Southern Utah senior John Knight III/ by Brooks Nuanez

“We knew in the game plan that they were hugging the shooters so it’s a matter of time, one-on-one,” Knight said. “If it’s me against a big, I’m taking me every time. Every time.”

Knight converted 13 of his first 17 shots and hit all eight of his free throw attempts, finishing 13-of-21 from the floor on the way to a career-high 34 points.

“They made five 3s and we made 10 and we had the looks to make that go to 12 or 15, but that’s the way we are built,” Smiley said. “I’m proud of our guys for doing that part of the job but when you do that, what Southern Utah does a great job of is they are top 15 in the country at getting to the free throw line.

“With John Knight, it’s easier said than done. He’s so big, explosive and athletic. You pressure him, he gets around you. He gets a head of steam, he goes through you.”

That effort helped SUU avoid an upset bid to a Northern Colorado team that dropped 90 points on Sacramento State in Wednesday’s opening round and raced to a 20-11 lead the first eight minutes of Thursday’s opener.

“They stay true to their defensive principles, they get out on shooters so the spacing on the floor, if you can play skilled basketball at the rim, you have a chance,” SUU head coach Todd Simon said.

Northern Colorado junior Bodie Hume scored 30 points for the second straight game/ by Brooks Nuanez

UNC junior swingman Bodie Hume nailed seven 3-pointers and scored 30 points to pace the entertaining win over Sac State. And at the outset of Thursday’s quarterfinal, the All-Big Sky wing looked like he might shoot the Bears to an upset.

The 6-foot-6 sharp shooter nailed his first three 3-point tries to stake UNC to an early lead. But Southern Utah forced nine turnovers over the final 11 minutes minutes of the first half, using a ferocious full-court trap to end the first half on a 20-4 run to take a 46-34 lead into halftime.

“We haven’t used the press as much as we want but it’s part of our identity and we knew it would be a big factor for us in this tournament going forward,” Simon said. “With our depth, we can put a lot of bodies out there.

Southern Utah head coach Todd Simon/ by Brooks Nuanez

Part of that spurt coincided with UNC junior All-Big Sky guard Matt Johnson twisting his right ankle, forcing him to come out of the game for a few pivotal minutes.

Knight’s final points came on a pair of free throws with 8:22 left that gave Southern Utah a 76-60 lead, the largest of the game for the Big Sky regular-season champions.

From there, Hume, Daylen Kountz and the Bears chipped away at the gap. When Kountz, a former Colorado transfer who finished with 22 points, hit his first 3-pointer with 1:55 left, it cut the SUU lead to 84-80.

“In the Big Sky, you have 11 teams that all expect to get it done and when it ends, it’s tough,” Smiley said. “That’s a really good team. I was proud of how we started. We came out and had a good lead early on. Their press really bothered us in the first half and that’s how they flipped that thing around.”


UNC would get no closer as Dre Marin and Tevian Jones helped the Thunderbirds salt away the game at the free throw line. Marin, an all-league senior, hit all eight of his free throw attempts and scored 15 points. Jones, a talented former transfer from Illinois, went 5-of-6 at the stripe and scored 13 points as SUU hit 30-of-35 from the free throw line.

Southern Utah senior Dre Marin/ By Brooks Nuanez

During Simon’s five years at the helm, the Thunderbirds have made a habit of busting the Big Sky bracket. In his first season, SUU became the first No. 12 seed to win a game in this tournament. The next two seasons, SUU knocked out the No. 2 seed, beating Idaho and Northern Colorado, respectively, to reach the semifinals.

Now the T-Birds are into the semis again, but it didn’t take a week and multiple wins to get there. Southern Utah won its 20th game Thursday and will await the winner of No. 4 Idaho State and No. 5 Montana State in Thursday’s second quarterfinal.

“We are looking at this thing like 0-0, everyone is hungry, everyone has their eyes on the championship,” Marin said. “We want to be locked in and play every game as far as we can.”

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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